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Category Archive: Fiction

neuroSCIence in FIction: Hannibal Lecter’s memory palace

Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.”

― Thomas Harris, Hannibal

Yesterday we were talking about the memory palace of Tom Meseroll, the Master of Martial Magic, so it is fitting that this week’s Neuroscience in Fiction pick features a fictional memory palace: the mansion of reminiscence at the center of Hannibal Lecter’s brilliantly twisted mind.


The fragment that follows is from Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, where we learn all about Dr. Lecter’s unsavory past. The novel is not for everybody’s taste (pun intended), and I thought Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs were superior, but I did enjoy Harris’s lavish descriptions of Hannibal’s mnemonics:


    The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.
Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.
We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.
He has decided to pick up Clarice Starling’s home address while he is in the palace, but he is in no hurry for it, so he stops at the foot of a great staircase where the Riace bronzes stand. These great bronze warriors attributed to Phidias, rased from the seafloor in our own time, are the centerpiece of a frescoed space that could unspool all of Homer and Sophocles.
Dr. Lecter could have the bronze faces speak Meleager if he wished, but today he only wants to look at them.
A thousand rooms, miles of corridors, hundreds of facts attached to each object furnishing each room, a pleasant respite awaiting Dr. Lecter whenever he chooses to retire there.
Fearfully and wonderfully made, we follow as he moves with a swift stride along the corridor of his own making, through a scent of gardenias, the presence of great sculpture pressing on us, and the light of pictures.
His way leads around to the right past a bust of Pliny and up the staircase to the Hall of Addresses, a room lined with statuary and paintings in a fixed order, spaced wide apart and well lit, as Cicero recommends.
Ah… The third alcove from the door on the right is dominated by a painting of St. Francis feeding a moth to a starling. On the floor before the painting is this tableau, life-sized in painted marble.
A parade in Arlington National Cemetery led by Jesus, thirty three, driving a ’27 Model-T Ford truck, a “tin lizzie,” with J. Edgar Hoover standing in the truck bed wearing a tutu and waving to an unseen crowd. Marching behind him is Clarice Starling carring a .308 Enfield rifle at shoulder arms.


Check out Sleights of Mind for our thoughts on the intersection of magic and memory. We also recommend Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s account of becoming a memory champion through intensive training in mnemonic techniques, such as the memory palace (also known as the method of loci). Or read The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence, about the Italian Jesuit priest who taught this method to 16th century Confucian scholars in China.


-Susana Martinez-Conde

Neuroscience in Fiction: Stephen King’s The Jaunt

Image by Darek Kocurek,

Your mind can be your best friend; it can keep you amused even when there’s nothing to read, nothing to do. But it can turn on you when it’s left with no input for too long. It can turn on you, which means that it turns on itself, savages itself, perhaps consumes itself in an unthinkable act of auto-cannibalism.”

Stephen King – The Jaunt

Granted, Stephen King is not the first name that comes to mind when you think about neuroscience insights, but this week’s Neuroscience in Fiction pick will give you a lot to ponder.

The Jaunt is part of King’s Skeleton Crew short story collection, and one of the most engaging sci-fi tales I’ve read. In the not-too-distant future, humankind has achieved teleportation, or as they call it, jaunting. Unconscious bodies and cargo can travel from the Earth to Mars in a fraction of a second, unharmed and unchanged. But the effect of the Jaunt on a fully conscious, sentient being, is a different creature altogether.

The Jaunt explores the limits of sustained sensory deprivation on the mind, with just a little bit of gore thrown in for added effect. We’re talking about Stephen King, after all.

For extra credit, check out Sleights of Mind for our thoughts on the neuroscience of sensory deprivation.

The art featured in this post is the work of Darek Cokurek — visit his website for more wonderful examples, including many covers of books by Stephen King.

We hope you enjoy The Jaunt. If nothing else, the ending will stay with you for longer than you think.

-Susana Martinez-Conde

Neuroscience in Fiction: Fat Farm

“The law says that there is only one possible Barth in all the world. And you aren’t it. You’re just a number. And a letter. The letter H.”

Orson Scott Card, Fat Farm

This week’s Neuroscience in Fiction pick is Fat Farm, by bestselling author of the Enderverse Orson Scott Card.

Martin Barth is a man with an insatiable appetite and a serious yo-yoing weight problem. Technology and wealth have helped him before, but in the end he must face the unforeseen consequences of his relentless pursuit of pleasure, youth and an ideal BMI.

Orson Scott Card said that he wrote Fat Farm in frustration with his own struggles with weight gain and loss. The story is part of the collection Maps in a Mirror, and a comic book version appears in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show.

Fat Farm touches upon multiple neuroscience themes, including the nature of self, consciousness, and perhaps most intriguingly, habit formation and maintenance.

For extra credit, check out our Fat Tuesday posts, where Steve and I discuss the neuroscience and psychology of hunger, satiety, weight gain and weight loss.


-Susana Martinez-Conde


Love Warmed Over

Love Warmed Over

The Spanish popular science magazine Quo invited 7 Spanish scientists to contribute short stories for a special issue. The only rule: the stories had to combine science and love.

For those of you who understand Spanish, my story “Amor recalentado” [Love warmed over], co-authored with Stephen Macknik, is freely accessible on the Quo website.

You can also read the other six stories here.

–Susana Martinez-Conde

Neuroscience in Fiction: Still Alice

Everything she did and love, everything she was, required language.”
Lisa Genova, Still Alice

Harvard-trained neuroscientist and author Lisa Genova couldn’t get agents or publishers interested in her debut novel Still Alice. So she decided to self-publish. The book became an overnight sensation that led to a six-figure advance from publishing house Simon and Shuster.

Still Alice describes the descent of Alice, a successful professor and researcher, into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and the consequences for her family and career.

Genova followed up her Still Alice success with another novel grounded in clinical neuroscience: Left Neglected (about a patient suffering from hemineglect).

Both Still Alice and Left Neglected are moving and well-written stories, but if I had to choose I’d go for the more restrained tone of Still Alice. As a fellow academic, I also found the protagonist very relatable. (Full disclosure: in one of the most poignant moments in the book, Alice forgets a critical piece of electronics inside the fridge, with vital consequences… well, I’ve done the same exact thing at least once, although with far less momentous results).

For extra credit, read “Elegy for Iris”, literary critic John Bayley’s memoir about his wife, novelist Iris Murdoch, and her battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Or watch the Oscar-winning movie “Iris”.

Also, check out the Society for Neuroscience’s primer about Alzheimer’s disease.


-Susana Martinez-Conde

Neuroscience in Fiction: What’s Expected of Us

My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will”. — Ted Chiang, What’s Expected of Us

Ted Chiang is one of my favorite science fiction writers. He doesn’t write very often, but when he does turn in a new, perfectly crafted story, you know you’re in for a real treat.

This week’s pick is Ted Chiang’s take on the age-old problem of free will. Chiang’s story, What’s Expected of Us, appeared in Nature‘s sci-fi series Futures in 2005.

The story explores the consequences that a definite demonstration that free will is an illusion would entail for humankind.

Our book Sleights of Mind also discusses our experience of free will from a nonfiction perspective, as do Jesse Bering and Shaun Nichols‘s excellent Scientific American essays.

Do you think free will is an illusion? Does your belief in free will, or lack thereof, permeate your everyday choices?


-Susana Martinez-Conde

Neuroscience in Fiction: Total Recall

“I was sent in as a security measure. I'm afraid to tell you this Mr. Quaid, but you have suffered a schizoid embolism, we can't snap you out of your fantasy. I was sent here to try to talk you down”. -Dr. Edgemar, Total Recall (1990)

After a long hiatus, Steve and I are back on the blogosphere. We intend to blog Monday through Friday, usually taking turns, about the interaction of neuroscience and daily experience. One daily, or at least weekly, experience that we enjoy is fiction. We are avid book readers and movie watchers, and many of our favorite books and movies have a neuroscience core, or relate to neuroscience in some way. On Fridays, we’ll recommend a neuroscience-y book or movie that you can check out during the weekend.

Post here if you’d like to discuss it.

This Friday’s recommendation is the new Total Recall movie, in theaters today. The 1990 version, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a sci fi revelation, and I hope the remake will deliver! Without giving away too many spoilers, the story centers on the fallibility of memory and our limitations to link subjective experience to objective reality.

For extra credit, read Philip K. Dick’s original story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”.

-Susana Martinez-Conde